Abundance, need, and a fair balance

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They bumped heads, and one of them would up with a serious gash on the forehead.
One of our team leaders pulled out our first aid kit and bandaged up the wound as best she could. But it was a pretty big gash.
“He needs stitches,” we all said. But the nearest doctor was an hour and a half away, in the city of Kisii, and in that part of Kenya, the facts of life were different. You didn’t go and see the doctor for something as simple as a gash on the forehead.
In Nicaragua, in 2003, my very first foreign mission trip, we were told that, as in the U.S., there’s no tuition charge for people to send their children to public school. But there are two requirements: the children have to wear a uniform and have to bring their own textbooks. Neither of those is very expensive, by our standards; in all, they told us, the cost was something like $20 per year.
Hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguan families can’t afford it, and can’t send their children to school as a result.
Here in the United States, we have different levels of poverty. I just got back yesterday from a week up in Grundy County, on the Cumberland Plateau, as part of Mountain T.O.P.’s Adults In Ministry, or AIM, program. Many of us have gone through hard times in the past few years, but in Grundy County the poverty, and some of the cultural problems that go with it, go back for generations.
When I go to AIM, I usually work in programs for children or teenagers from Grundy County. That’s what I did last week; I worked in Summer Plus, an enrichment program for teenagers. I taught a creative writing workshop, in which the teens and I collaborated on a short story. That was in the afternoon; in the morning, I helped out with an arts and crafts workshop being led by one of the other volunteers.
Each morning, we picked the kids up from their homes out in the county, and we dropped them off each afternoon. We saw where the kids lived as we drove around the county picking them up. Just as here in Bedford County, a variety of settings. Some kids come from extreme poverty; others come from comfortable, middle-class homes. But even the ones that seem to be doing well economically may have other needs – social needs, emotional needs.
Paul was writing to the church in Corinth – the Corinthians – asking them to send money to support the church in Jerusalem, which at that time was exceptionally poor. There had been a famine in Judaea at the time. Today, the food on our table comes from all around the world, at all times of the year. But in those days, you had to eat what was grown locally, at the times of year when it was in season. And so if there was a famine, it had a very specific and powerful impact – people went hungry. And that impact was sometimes on a very specific local area.
So the people of Jerusalem were in dire need, and Paul asked the Corinthians for help. At the beginning of today’s passage, he flatters them a little bit, telling them that they excel “in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness.”
He also told them that they excelled in his love for them – in other words, he told them that they were among his favorites. And after flattering them, he told them that there was one more thing he wanted them to excel at – generosity.
Generosity is important. It’s one thing to be exceptional in faith, and speech, and knowledge, to stand behind a pulpit as if you have any idea what you’re talking about. It’s another thing to excel in generosity.
In fact, as Paul tells the Corinthians, they have a powerful model and example in the practice of generosity: Jesus. “Though he was rich,” writes Paul, “yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”
Paul then urges the Corinthians to bring their eagerness to completion by expressing it in their generosity.
In the 12th verse, Paul tells the Corinthians that if their eagerness is there – if they are giving willfully and joyfully – the gift only needs to be based on their means.
I’m sure we’re all thinking of the parable of the widow’s mite, in the 12th chapter of Mark and in the 21st chapter of Luke. Jesus and his disciples see a widow – and in Bible times, widows were almost always poor because they had no means of support – placing two of the smallest coins into the offering at the temple. Jesus tells them that her gift was one of great generosity – because it was all she had. Others appeared to give much more than the widow, but they gave out of their excess, money they could afford to throw away.
Paul tells the Corinthians to give, in a spirit of enthusiasm, according to their means.
“For if the eagerness is there,” he said, “the gift is acceptable according to what one has – not according to what one does not have.”
Then Paul gets into a little bit of economic theory.
“I do not mean,” he said, “that there should be relief on others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance.”
It’s a question of being willing to help someone out in their time of need, to recognize God’s blessings on your life and to be willing to share your abundance with those who have less. And it means a humble realization that you may have to turn around and rely on someone else someday.
It’s very true that poverty programs need to look not only at short-term relief but at what’s going to make a long-term difference. LEAMIS International Ministries, the group with which I’ve taken my foreign mission trips, tries to make its program one of education and empowerment. For example, we teach cottage industry workshops that help the people with whom we work create a product.
There’s an old saying, and you’ve heard it many times, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”
That’s certainly a true statement, and it’s a good basis for ministry. But the trouble is, a lot of us don’t really do either. We listen to the proverb, and we nod our heads, and we conveniently tell ourselves that if we give others too much we’re taking away their incentive to work.
But sometimes we use common sense as an excuse not to care. We don’t go the extra mile to make sure that the opportunity exists for people to better themselves. We don’t really look to see who’s abusing the system and who’s in genuine need. We hear about one person who’s cheating, and we conveniently assume that everyone is cheating. We see one person who’s lazy, and we use it as an excuse not to help others. We make snap judgments about people we’ve never met.
I’m as guilty as anyone else. Back in the days when they had actual food stamps instead of that little debit card, it was easier to tell who was receiving assistance. I’d get behind someone in the grocery store line, and it was all too easy to start judging their purchases. “If they’re on food stamps, they shouldn’t be buying such-and-such.”
We’re quick to judge people, and we’re slow to make the effort to put ourselves in their shoes. And sometimes, blaming someone for being an unworthy recipient is a good excuse for us to stop giving, or a good excuse for us never to start giving in the first place.
Partnership is a good basis for ministry. Programs like Mountain T.O.P. or Habitat for Humanity demand that those who receive assistance participate in that assistance in some way – such as by contributing “sweat equity” to their homes. In the best cases, that partnership teaches something to both sides, and both sides go away feeling that they’ve accomplished something worthwhile.

We do have to look at the ways in which we express our generosity. When you give clothes away to charity, eventually there are some clothes left over that not even the charity can find takers for. Some of that clothing gets bundled up and shipped overseas. Good idea, right? Well, maybe, maybe not. In some impoverished countries, the local textile and clothing industries were among the few successful local businesses, at least before the avalanche of cast-off American clothing rendered them obsolete.
When I’ve been to Kenya, there are often children in downtown Nairobi begging for money. But our hosts in Nairobi, Bishop Paul Mbithi and his wife Grace, have always ordered us not to give them anything. It turns out most of them are actually employees, working for con artists. Some of them can be quite pitiful-looking, and it was tempting to slip them something, especially because that’s why we were in Kenya in the first place, to help the less fortunate. But if we were to give these children money, we would perpetuate a system that exploits the kids and makes someone else rich. That’s why Paul and Grace tell us we have to say “no.”
So we have to do our giving wisely. We can’t just throw money at problems; we have to look at what we’re doing and why. We want our giving, when it’s possible, to be towards programs that empower and encourage people to improve their own lives.
But as I said, we sometimes use these kinds of practical concerns as an excuse not to give at all. We hear some tale of charity or assistance gone wrong, and we hold that up as an example that it’s better to just ignore the poor and let them fall flat on their own faces. We tell ourselves that it’s not only the smart thing to do, but the noble thing to do.
Gordon Gekko, Michael Douglas’s character in the 1980s movie “Wall Street” summed up this philosophy:
“Greed, for lack of a better word, is good,” he said. “Greed is right; greed works.”
Jesus isn’t going to let us off the hook that easily.
The fact of the matter is, the Bible doesn’t just command us to help people who deserve it. Paul uses Jesus as the model for our generosity. If Jesus had only died for those who deserved it, the crucifixion would not have happened at all – because no one is worthy of that gift. The Bible doesn’t just command us to help people who are grateful, or who are responsible, or who are worthy of our help. The Bible commands us to be generous, and it’s as much for our sake as it is for the sake of those who receive the gifts.
There are different kinds of poverty, different standards of poverty. The last few years have been frustrating for all of us, and I don’t want to make light of anyone’s economic pain. But the fact of the matter is that even in the middle of a recession, our standard of living here in this country is far beyond what a lot of countries are even able to imagine. The poorest person here in Bedford County is certainly in need of our help and our compassion – but they’d be considered quite fortunate by someone in the Kibera slums outside Nairobi.
Does that mean we should send all of our money to Nairobi and none of it to Bedford County? No, of course not. I think it’s important for us to be involved at various levels – locally, where we can see the need and interact with the people; regionally; and globally.
According to the History Channel show “United Stats of America,” the average American has twice the amount of personal possessions as 25 years ago. The show did an episode about personal space, and they went to a storage facility and interviewed some of the customers. They showed how much stuff Americans are storing away for no reason – things we’re never likely to even use or need again, but we can’t quite bring ourselves to get rid of.
Paul tells the Corinthians that the ones who have much shouldn’t have too much, and the ones who have little shouldn’t have too little.
Our challenge as Christians in a world of haves and have-nots is to do all things with compassion, to make sure that our generosity goes just a little bit farther than our cynicism. That requires that we get to know what poverty is really like, that we interact with people before we judge them – or that we interact with people instead of judging them.
I don’t know if anyone here has read the book “Same Kind Of Different As Me,” by Ron Hall and Denver Moore. I bet some of you have. In that book, Ron Hall – a wealthy Fort Worth art dealer – begrudgingly does some volunteer work at a homeless shelter, in order to appease his wife. He meets a black former sharecropper named Denver, and at one point, without thinking too much about it, he offers to be Denver’s friend. But Denver tells Ron that white people sometimes catch fish and then let them go. Denver didn’t want pity – he didn’t want to be caught and released. If Ron wanted real friendship, Denver was willing – but only if it was real friendship.

Paul is calling on the Corinthians to give according to eagerness, not out of obligation. Paul, pointing to Jesus’ example, is calling on them to express real generosity, real enthusiasm, real love for their fellow man. And we are called upon to do the same.
Are we up to the task?

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John Carney is a journalist, a certified United Methodist lay speaker, a veteran of foreign and domestic short-term mission trips, and author of a self-published novel, Soapstone.